On Leverets, Selfishness and Self-interest

I started the day Tuesday by saving a life. It wasn’t necessarily what some would consider a very significant life, but it felt good to save it anyway.

Looking out the back window after I woke up, I saw some helpless creature which had basically given up on its attempts at a breast stroke in the back yard pool. It turned out to be a young hare, a leveret, which had somehow jumped in and not found the escape ramp. I ran out in my underwear, grabbed the pool cleaning net and fished it out. It lay there in the grass on its side, paralyzed with shock and hypothermia. I fetched a towel and a cardboard box, dried it off a little and brought it inside, into the sauna. I covered the creature over with some ripped up newspaper, turned the sauna on low and waited and watched. Pretty soon, after a half hour or so, it started to shiver more violently. Eventually it started to move its head and legs in a more voluntary looking manner. At that point I went to fetch my host family’s cat carrier box. I didn’t want to turn the creature loose on its own at nature’s mercy just yet, and I didn’t want it running around the house in a panic after it fully recovered, so the cat carrier box seemed to be the most sensible alternative.

Eventually it started got its feet under it and assumed a normal alert resting position for a rabbit-like creature. From there I brought it into the living room and sat it on the table next to me as I began my day’s Internet activities. It remained mostly motionless, probably still in shock, but it was breathing steadily, its eyes were open and clear, and eventually it’s shivering stopped. I shooed the curious cats away and gave it a cabbage leaf and a chunk of carrot. The leveret wasn’t interested.

It was just barely dried out when my host family came home after being out of town for just over a month. Of course their elementary school aged boy was impressed with the new “pet,” though we made it clear right away that it wasn’t for keeps. There was some discussion of an appropriate name though. Andre wanted to call it “Fluffy”. I thought “Soggy” would be more appropriate. Mary, the mother of the family, predictably had the best suggestion though: since it was found swimming during the course of the summer Olympics we decided to call it “Phelps”.

Phelps’ presence here raised some interesting ethical questions though. What moral responsibility did I actually have towards such a creature? To what extent are my actions purely a matter of pursuing my own personal satisfaction?  Does the bunny owe me something in return? Are there limits to how I am entitled to use the creature thereafter? In the end, do the leveret’s feelings about life really matter?

If I had chosen to just throw the creature in its catatonic state of shock onto the compost heap so that some scavenger could come eat it just before or after it died of natural causes, no one could have really complained. Some might consider it to be more moral under such circumstances to bash its brains in first, to keep it from experiencing as much pain, but it’s hard to say exactly what, if anything, it feels like to be a young hare in a terminal state of shock, so the amount of good that would have done is questionable.

On the other hand I could have done as some of my colleagues jokingly suggested and saved it for human consumption later on. They say that tender young hares are lovely in garlic butter, and they’re probably right. There wasn’t really much meat on it yet, but kept in a pen and fed drop apples and grass clippings for a few months it could well have grown and fatten up enough to become a good, cheap, single serving meal.

Or, with his mother’s permission I could have indulged little Andre’s fantasy of keeping the leveret until it grew into a full-sized hare, and it eventually came to recognize us as its very best friends, even if it couldn’t really express much affection to us. From Andre’s perspective you can never have too many cute, furry animals around.

Andre is a typical eleven-year-old in many respects, maybe slightly more sensitive than average in the positive sense of the word. He enjoys spending time with all sorts of animals, especially those of the more warm and fuzzy persuasion. He also enjoys having things to show off to his friends from the neighborhood. Andre and I have had some other interesting adventures together this summer, including catching some fairly large yellow perch in a local lake. Some of those we ate, but his parents and I allowed Andre to keep two of them as “pets” in the landscaping pond in the back yard.  In the nearly two months since then they haven’t floated to the surface anyway. There were a significant number of tadpoles in there for the fish to eat, and we threw in some stale bread and worms from the back of the garden every now and again. I haven’t seen the fish in there weeks but there are seemingly fewer and fewer tadpoles. Thus the fish might or might not still be alive in there. It’s quite possible that the gulls and foxes which occasionally frequent the back yard here got them at some point. The water is too murky to say for sure. I’m not going to lose any sleep over it though.

Both in terms of having something to show off to his friends and as sources of empathetic experience for Andre, the fish and the hare have ranked somewhere between his cats and his I-Pad: For impressing boys from the neighborhood the order of importance would probably be I-Pad, hare, fish, cats; for empathetic experience it would probably be cats, hare, fish, I-Pad. Is it worth causing the creatures some discomfort along the way to give him these positive experiences? Perhaps.

When it comes down to it, hares are nature’s perfect fast food for predators such as foxes, lynx, owls, etc.: they reproduce quickly and in abundance, they grow quickly, eating a variety of whatever grasses and plant products are available without being too picky about it, and they’re actually incredibly stupid. Their only natural defense is camouflage coloring and strong bursts of sprint speed for immediate getaways. Beyond that their fur is particularly soft and comforting to stroke, and potentially very useful as clothing trim. As there are some animals I obviously don’t really mind being a bit cruel to –– worms, tadpoles, fish, etc. –– why draw the line at hares?

In rationalizing my natural and/or conditioned emotional responses in this matter, I could dust off Peter Singer’s “Expanding Circle” theory, according to which our moral evolutionary advancement can be roughly measured inversely according to how much like us someone or something has to be in order for us to feel empathy towards him/her/it and treat this person/thing as a valid ethical object. In other words the more we care about creatures like bunnies, the more morally advanced we are.

As Singer’s theory goes, prior to the agricultural revolution, in the early Stone Age, as far as we can tell people were prone to protect and sympathize with only those with whom they were fairly directly related either by blood or marriage. Those on the other side of the mountain from them were more often than not seen as enemies to be fought off and killed. Those others might be a useful source of women to steal, but they were also a threat to the women of one’s own clan, and they were competitors for local resources in terms of mushrooms, berries and game. Better just to kill them off to increase our own children’s chances of survival.

As we progressed as a species, however, and as we learned to farm the land and grow crops and raise livestock, those people on the other side of the mountain became less competitors for resources and more partners in trade. Your farm had plenty of potatoes, carrots and sheep; his farm had plenty of peas, beans and chickens; and further down the river was a guy who specialized in growing pumpkins, cabbage and cows. By cooperating and trading with each other life could be enriched for all.

Not too long after that society became specialized enough where we could afford to pay some people just to make tools for everyone else, or to provide defensive services for everyone else, or to gather the collective wisdom of the group and pass it on to everyone else –– especially the children of the tribe. On the basis of these professions new, broader circles of empathy arose: first with those who were part of our same mutual defense agreement –– the city-state, and with then those who were part of our same collective circle of wisdom –– our religious communities. Between trade going completely global, city-states expanding into empires, and the collective wisdom of particular tribes morphing into world religions, when it came to the distinctions between “us” and “them” people came to see fewer and fewer others as being so “them” that we should just kill them off.

Not that these forms of global community expansion have been without their problems. As travel and communications technologies have advanced and our world has gotten smaller, we have regularly encountered significant boundaries of difference in terms of the language, diet, physical characteristics and cultural presuppositions of the people we have encountered. Though humans as a species are much more homogeneous than dogs, horses, cats or rabbits, the differences we do display can be rather shocking when we’re not ready for them. But progressively we’ve learned to deal with most of them.

It might be a tad optimistic to declare it as a victory, but it is still a fair analysis of history to say that sometime in the early modern age we as a species came to the collective realization/determination that all people are worthy of our mutual respect, and we started working on ideas of what rights all people are entitled to just because they are people. Seeing that project through to completion is what many of us consider to be the fundamental goal of ethics.

But from Singer’s perspective the goal of moral advancement from here is to “expand the circle” further from there and consider all mammals or maybe even all animals as moral objects. From there maybe we can work on empathizing better with plants…

There are a few ways of looking at this. One is to ignore Singer’s perspective  by considering us humans to belong to a special category unto ourselves –– more “godlike” than any other creatures. This can be based directly on the creation narratives of one religion or another, or it can be based on a perception of mankind as the peak of evolutionary achievement. From this perspective we have a (literal or figurative) God-given right to rule the world and all other creatures in it –– using them to our advantage however we see fit.

Singer followers, however, would condemn this approach as “speciesist” –– displaying a certain distasteful prejudice towards favoring our own kind at the expense of those which happen to be different. Most “good people” these days are prone to reject equivalent claims when they are applied to, for instance, white people being more evolved, or more favored by God, than black people, as was popular to believe a couple centuries ago. So why then would it be permissible to claim that humans are more evolved, or more favored by God, than any other animals? Just because we have the combination of bigger brains, more dexterous opposable thumbed hands and a broader range of linguistic vocalization abilities than any of our competitors, does that make us inherently better in the sense of moral entitlement?

An entirely different perspective on the matter would be to answer that rhetorical question with, why not? What are you talking about when you refer to “moral advancement” as an evolutionary characteristic anyway? Are you saying that it is something that equips the species to pass on its genes more reliably, or are you assuming that there is something more than that to it? In the former case it is easy to see how building solidarity with all other human beings might be helpful in keeping us from destroying ourselves, but how would an assumption of solidarity with lions and tigers and bear (Oh my!) play a positive role in keeping our genetic lines going? Of course we want to find sustainable ways of working with our environment, including all of the other creatures in it, but that does not necessarily imply that we must consider other animals to be entitled to the same sorts of rights we are as part of our considered strategy for survival. On the other hand, if someone is making the claim that having as broad a sense of empathy as possible to be the mark moral advancement –– a clear end unto itself –– that leaves us with the question of why should we accept this as anything more than yet one more quasi-religious ideological principle among all of the others we are plagued with. Don’t we have enough self-righteousness in the world without adding yet another variety to the mix?

In practice we find ourselves with certain moral principles based on our sense of empathy that aren’t particularly consistent, but which we usually find to be functional enough. We westerners don’t eat dogs or cats, and we tend to shy away from eating horses, but we generally have no problem eating bear or wild boar or beef. We have major campaigns to protect animals we find interesting and exotic –– which somehow “touch our hearts” –– but we find it hard to get excited about protecting rare insects, reptiles and fish. We have laws against certain forms of cruelty to animals –– like dog fights, cock fights and working horses without proper shoes –– but we make room for many forms of sport hunting and fishing and factory farming with relatively little concern for animals’ feelings. Yet even so, it’s still probably fair to say that the average cow in Europe has a higher quality of life, certainly better access to medical care and more regulations protecting its well-being than do the slum dwelling garbage picking children in many parts of the developing world.

The fact is that no one is so “advanced” in Singer’s terms as to give hares –– even very cute and innocent young ones –– the same sorts of rights we give to people. Perhaps Kant is right: what I did was too feeling-based to count as an ethical decision.

But frankly I don’t really care how you label it. Partially out of respect for life in general, among young mammals in particular, I decided to help the creature even though I didn’t have to. In the process formed a superficial bond with the leveret, allowing its sense of well-being to have a limited influence on my own sense of well-being. Being able to make a series of such connections is, from my perspective, one of the major things that make life worth living. If I can share such values and experiences with a school boy living under the same roof, so much the better. In some ways this might be self-indulgent of me but I have no sense of guilt about the matter whatsoever. If I can experience “the warming of my heart” in such simple, natural ways I will do it every time.

So as a conclusion to this adventure, on Wednesday evening, after Phelps had spent much of the day enduring all forms of well-meaning human attention from Andre and friends, we set the carrier box on the ground on the back patio and left the door open. The leveret remained frozen in place in the front corner of the box as we spoke softly to it and gave it a few goodbye strokes. We then went inside and watched from the window to see if and when it would leave. Ten minutes later it was still there, so I stepped into the kitchen to get a little dish of water to set in front of it, perhaps to lure it out of the box. While I was doing so Andre noticed that it had gone. No one saw exactly where it ran off to. We left the box with the carrot and apple pieces there on the patio, but there is no evidence that Phelps has been back since.

So here’s hoping that the little creature has a relatively long and satisfying life in the local woods, and here’s hoping that the rest of you as well are able to have satisfying if trivial experiences of connecting with other people and beings.



Filed under Empathy, Ethics, Human Rights

6 responses to “On Leverets, Selfishness and Self-interest

  1. Nice pic of a beautiful animal!

    I haven’t read Singer’s book, but I don’t believe his theory of pre-agricultural man is anthropologically sound. In fact, I believe he has it backwards.
    From what I understand, it is in anthropology it is the agricultural revolution that is mostly associated with the development of warfare, simply because roving bands of hunter-gatherers have no territorial claims and few possessions to steal, and none of their possession require a significant industrial commitment (because of the requirement to keep moving). Furthermore, the carrying capacity of the land puts a definite limit to the size of hunter-gathering groups – somewhere around 25 members per group – which both makes these cultures very egalitarian and makes warfare dicey: the value of each individual is at a premium.
    Smallscale warfare – cattle raids or bride stealing or territorial squabbles – are features of agricultural societies. It is precisely the boom-and-bust nature of agricultural subsistence, so dependent on the whim of climate and pestilence, that requires the storing of food in significant quantitites that attracts the raids of ones neighbors. Especially if those neighbors just lost their harvest to locust or flood, and the men sit idle between seasons.
    The very idea that a hunter-gathering people would wage war over local resources is preposterous when you consider the amount of land required to sustain a group of 25 people: a group like this would constantly have to be on the move to keep from depleting the local resources, and since they’re constantly on the move, there is no locality to be fought over.
    If Marshall Sahlins is correct that the “original affluent society” of hunter-gathering peoples enjoyed a “Zen economy”, then Singer’s case gets even weaker.

    There is a case to be made that people started off from that collective realization/determination that “all people are worthy of our mutual respect”, which people then largely lost by the sedentary lifestyle of agriculture, encouraging as it does isolation, hoarding and warfare in times of need. Considering “all mammals or maybe even all animals as moral objects” seems to me closer to a shaman’s ritual placation of the Deer or the Seal in preparation for the hunt and the ritual thanks following success than a farmer’s shepherd deity.

    That all said though, said hunter-gatherer would probably have (humanely) bashed the soaked hare’s skull in, and proceeded in cooking and skinning its meager remains.

    • I’ve just inserted the link for Singer’s book into the blog, if you’re more seriously interested.

      Animals as moral objects would perhaps be represented more strongly in Jainism than any other ancient tradition, FWDIM.

      I’m also rather cynical of many nostalgic perspectives on the virtues of stone age societies, but I’m willing to allow everyone to speculate according to their own tastes on such matters. 😉

  2. I love this story. A special and not at all “trivial” connection with another being!! Thanks for sharing. I’m not a philosopher by trade but I have read a bit on my own and sought out experiences of transpersonal connection. My personal view is that our connections to one another and to everything else in the world are so ubiquitous and abiding that what we do to one we do to a part of ourselves and to the entire system. Living a life then of good and of service seems like a good place to start. Just some off the cuff thoughts. Don’t rip me to shreds with your philosophizing!! 😉

  3. Juuso

    …You got pretty far from finding a hare to Singer´s philosofical extensional thinking, I fell off the kärry pretty soon… hit a hare here with my car and took it to rating purposes, although you shjould leave them nowadays to landowners… meaning to supikoira and minkki and others like varis to eat…

    but philosophy is not the strongest of my brainworking areas, specially now as the summers hottest days are here at last!

  4. Yeah, I don’t disagree with a sceptical reaction to historic and prehistoric nostalgia, whether placed on “knights in shining armor” or prehistoric utopias. But I also dislike the cultural arrogance that still dominates our historical narrative of the neolithic revolution, namely that agriculture was developed as a dependable, constant food supply to improve what was a meagre, starving nomadic existence. Farming is anything but constant and dependable (as the fluctuating corn prices in the states demonstrates), and modern hunter-gathering societies in many respects have a better and more varied diet than the modern man.
    I think “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” advocated some sort of diet by evolution: the moral choice would be to eat the least evolved (I guess the least intelligent) life-forms one can. In other words being a vegetarian.
    ….Personally though, I struggle with adding more greens in my diet.

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